The Taleban get in quickly with their claims and they get in dirty. Spy, whore, preacher – Taleban accusations stick, regardless of who they are aimed at, Afghan or foreigner, and regardless of the truth of the matter. In an Afghan context – and it seems, also, this week in an international one – such accusation can succeed in justifying, or at least explaining, murder. Following the killing of ten members of an eye care team in Badakhshan last week, senior AAN analyst, Kate Clark looks at how an opportunistic accusation by the Taleban that the dead had been preaching became ‘the truth’ in places far from Afghanistan. She’s also been hearing from Afghans who defend the dead.
One journalist in London told AAN, “I’ve just spent the whole weekend having people say, ‘Oh but they were carrying bibles’ and I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to correct them that it was Taleban saying that and not fact.”
“I felt sick,” said another friend in Boston who knew the murdered Nuristan eye camp team-leader, Tom Little, well. “People know I used to live in Afghanistan so the subject came up in conversation over the weekend and people kept saying, ‘Well, they were preaching. They were carrying Persian-language bibles.’ I kept saying, no, that’s what the Taleban said and they lie, so why would you believe them?”
Just hours after news of the murders broke, Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed popped up on the airwaves, as reported on al-Jazeera:
‘The Taliban has said it shot dead eight foreign aid workers in a remote northern region of Afghanistan, accusing them of being “Christian missionaries”.
“Yesterday at around 8am, one of our patrols confronted a group of foreigners. They were Christian missionaries and we killed them all,” Zabihulla Mujahed, a spokesman for the Taliban movement, said on Saturday.
“They were carrying Persian language bibles, a satellite-tracking device and maps,” he said.
The bullet-riddled bodies of five men, all Americans, and three women, an American, a German and a Briton, were found in the northeastern province of Badakhshan on Friday, the provincial police chief said.
Mujahed said the group was lost and the victims were killed as they tried to escape.’
The timing of his claim was questionable – two days after the killings. The source was dubious – Mujahed’s Quetta-oriented section of the Taleban has little traction in Badakhshan, plus he initially got his information wrong, as to the gender and nationalities of the dead. One call to a senior Taleb based in Badakhshan by Michael Semple brought a very different response, “Our spokesman is lying.”
Yet it was the Taleban spokesman’s version of events which took root, at least initially. Is the media responsible for the way that somewhere between the Taleban claiming the killings and newspaper readers and TV and radio audiences in the west hearing that claim, it became fixed as fact – not just that the Taleban ‘did it’, but that they were killing Bible-carrying, Persian-speaking preachers (which is a conflation of two, possibly untrue, claims)? The inference, of course, is that the ten murdered people somehow deserved to die because they were either foolhardy Christians (a western secular view heard by friends in London and Boston) or committing a capital offence (a believing Muslim’s view) or, and this is a view emerging in some American publications, they were martyrs for their faith. The story, of course, gets further and further from the real individuals lying dead.
So how should journalists air a claim by Mujahed – or anyone else – which is dubious and maligns the dead? Air the claim, but interrogate Mujahed hard. Don’t write verbatim what he says – as al-Jazeera does. Hedge his quotes with disclaimers and scepticism and find someone to deny it. Above all, don’t condense the dubious claims, as happened in some initial headlines, along the grounds of; “Taleban kill ‘Christian Missionaries.’”
These are difficult issues to do with defamation, media freedom and honest reporting where one wants, not to shut down any sources per se (government, ISAF and Taleban are all mendacious at times), but to have some judgement about the sourcing and to let the reader or listener understand the journalist’s own doubts. Fair reporting is always possible (the BBC website for one, did a reasonable-ish job on the day, see ‘Foreign medical workers among 10 killed in Afghanistan’, 7 August 2010.
The other issue which has made this story difficult is that very occasionally, members of Christian NGOs have not been squeaky clean: most notoriously, Shelter Now International, in 2001, thought it was godly to lie and preach, pretending to be aid workers, while their members visited Afghan homes, showing the ‘Jesus film’ – a video put together specifically to try to win converts. When six of their staff were arrested, the organisation lied on their behalf until after they had been released as the Taleban regime collapsed (thanks, actually, to the kindness of some Taleban – although that’s another story). So why believe the denials now?
Since the first day or two of the story, there have been increasing numbers of publications pouring cold water on the Taleban story. (see the Boston Globe’s commentary ‘The Taliban’s fake religious war’, 10 August 2010). And unlike many Afghan victims of such smears, this has been a big story and there’s been time and space for more rounded accounts to emerge. It is not just the lives of the victims that deny the Taleban claims and speak for them as humanitarians. Afghans who knew IAM’s work and have decades-long memories of the two older men on the team – Dan Terry and Tom Little have also been defending and honouring the dead. They will feature in the next blog.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020